Thursday, January 7, 2010

Graphic Noveling in Three Acts

From my very first post in July 2005, one of my main reasons for blogging has been to share and document how a graphic novel gets made. A few people enjoy learning about the process, and it makes a handy diary for me to look back at as well. In that spirit, I thought I'd start writing a bit more about what I hope will be my third book--let's call it Mystery Project X--while revealing absolutely nothing about the story itself. Because I'm funny that way.

The main thing to keep in mind is that my way isn't the only way or right way; it's just mine. It actually just occurred to me that I wrote Mom's Cancer, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, and Mystery Project X in three very different ways, so that someone who's stuck with me from the start (all six of you) would see three different models in action.

Mom's Cancer was a memoir of actual events done in approximately real time, although delayed several weeks while I wrote, drew, and most importantly edited. I did try to craft a story with a beginning, middle and end (even though I didn't know at the time what the end would be), but it was largely structured by real life. WHTTWOT grew from early ideas that mutated into something completely unrecognizable from their origins. Inspiration came in spontaneous bits and clumps: Pop and Buddy, the old comic books, the timeless "Carousel of Progress" tour of the decades. Even now, I can't look back and explain how I got from A to B, but I think it worked and am happy with the result.

My approach to Mystery Project X has been more conventional and structured. Figured I might as well give it a shot. Unlike my first two books it's straight fiction, and the first things I worked on were character and story. Not plot! My friend Otis Frampton distinguishes plot from story like this: The plot of "Star Wars" is, "Darth Vader captures Princess Leia, but the droids R2-D2 and C3PO escape with the Death Star plans to the planet Tatooine, where they're bought by Luke Skywalker who etc. etc. etc. " The story of "Star Wars" is, "A young farmboy who yearns for adventure goes on a heroic quest aided by an exiled mentor, a princess on a mission, and a fortune-seeking rogue." Story is subtext: who wants what and why. Plot tells you how they succeed or fail.

So I've got three characters. I don't remember how I got them, but each wants something that conflicts with what the others want. I know who will succeed and fail. A fair start. I'm imagining and sketching scenes, things I picture them doing. I've got three or four really cool images stuck in my head, especially one that encapsulates the whole tale for me. I feel like if I keep that image in mind, my story will stay on track. I start to mold a plot around the story: How do they meet, what happens next, what happens after that, how do they all wind up at the end?

Since it's a work of fiction, I set out to apply the fundamental three-act dramatic structure, which goes back to the Greeks. You can think of the three acts as simply the beginning, middle, and end. Or the set-up, conflict, and resolution. Or the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Act One sets up the situation and conflicts, and ends with the hero going into action. In Act Two the situation plays out, characters clash, and the hero's problems mount. In Act Three, the hero figures out how to resolve the situation and wins (or, in a tragedy, loses).

Again using "Star Wars" as an example, Act One is everything leading up to the moment Luke sees his home destroyed and decides to go with Obi Wan. Everything's set up, we understand the stakes and rules, the players are in place (although, interestingly, we haven't met Han Solo yet), the game is afoot. Act Two is all the action that leads up to Luke, Leia and Han escaping from Vader and getting safely to the rebels. Act Three is when our heroes use what they learned in Act Two to attack the Death Star and win.

To help me map out my story and plot, I wrote each bit (or scene or beat) on a sticky note and put them on a poster board divided into three acts. In the past I've done the same thing with index cards spread all over the floor; works just as well. This immediately helped me see holes or spots that needed work. For example, I discovered during this process that the hero of my story wasn't who I thought it was, leading me to go back and rejigger everything accordingly. I added minor characters to provide information or tension, and rewrote my ending. It's a really good exercise, and since the story's just sticky notes you can shuffle them any way you want or throw out whole sections without fretting that it needs to be perfect.

Once I was happy with that, I transcribed the sticky notes into an outline, filling in plot details as I went. That 16-page outline, along with five pages of finished art showing how the characters and their world look, became the proposal that I sent to Editor Charlie in November. With his informal (i.e., "nothing in writing yet") interest and encouragement, I'm now working to turn the outline into a full script broken into pages, panels, captions and dialog. This also offers many opportunities for discovery and revision. The characters are finding their voices, plot holes are being unearthed and resolved, clues needed to solve mysteries on Page 100 are being planted on Page 5. Yesterday I wrote Page 89; I currently expect the book to come out to about 140 pages. I hope to have a good first draft done within a couple of weeks, send that to Charlie, and see what happens. One way or another I mean to do this book, even if I have to photocopy it myself and pass out copies on street corners.

So that's where I'm at and how I got here. I don't know if writing and drawing Mystery Project X will be a drama, comedy, tragedy or farce for me--I always hold out the possibility that everything could go completely to Hell at any moment, and I kind of feel like I'm going out on a potentially embarrassing limb here in case it does. But from time to time, with your indulgence, I'll let you know how it's going.


ronnie said...

Very interesting. When studying English lit in university, we were taught that the essential elements of a story are exposition, complication (sometimes termed 'conflict'), climax, resolution. Of all the information crammed into my brain during those four years, that's what I retained. That, and a lot of Shakespeare dialogue, and a smattering of Old English. All of which, as you can imagine, has been enormously useful to me in daily life.

I'm really looking forward to the unveiling of the new project!

Sandra said...

Brian, I found this post extremely interesting as well. The way you've handled this makes perfect sense. My initial thoughts were how different your approach to the graphic novel is compared to how I write story lines within my strip. When I write a story line I never know how it's going to evolve or even end until I get there. Of course, this "we'll see where it goes" approach would make a lousy proposal for a book publisher! However, thinking about it a bit more, I realize that although I don't follow your process for my strip story lines as a whole, I do work in a similar fashion for each of the intemittent weekly segments.

Good luck with the new project and looking forward to more posts about it!

Otis Frampton said...

Can't wait to read more about this, Brian!

Ronnie said...

I have loved following your process over the years. It is such a good antidote to those who just feel they "have a book in them" and they merely need to take some time and dash it off. I admire and envy your ability to do it all, and can hardly wait for the new one altho it will be easier since I'll be following its gestation.